BUNDABERG, Australia – The lawyer of an Indian-trained surgeon dubbed "Dr. Death" said Monday his client — a suspect in the deaths of 87 patients — is being used as a scapegoat for an ailing health system in Australia's Queensland state (search).
The lawyer, Damian Scattini, was speaking before a government inquiry looking into Dr. Jayant Patel's (search) involvement in the hospital fatalities in this northeastern sugarcane farming town where he worked for two years.
The health service in this northeastern state has been "chronically underfunded for many years, it's got a bureaucratic culture rather than a health-focused culture, and it's got a shoot-the-messenger culture," Scattini told The Associated Press. "This is the creation of a handy scapegoat."
Scattini suggested racism may also be a factor in the case against Patel, 55, who was born in India but is now an American citizen.
"He's Indian so he's not going to gather a lot of sympathy with the Queensland country voters — there's definitely an element of that here," he said.
The Royal Commission of Inquiry is also examining how Patel was allowed to practice in Australia despite previously being cited for negligence in Oregon and New York.
Patel left Australia in April and is now believed to be in Portland, Ore. He has not commented on the allegations.
When the inquiry — attended by about two dozen former patients and hospital staff — resumed Monday, a nurse who worked with Patel testified that she was so concerned because he did not wash his hands between patients that she gave him a new set of latex gloves for each one.
"When I gave him the gloves I basically said to him, 'I shouldn't have to be giving you these,'" Gail Aylmer told the inquiry.
Earlier this month, the commission recommended that Patel be charged with the murder or manslaughter of a patient who died five days after Patel performed an operation on him that several other doctors had allegedly refused to perform because it was too dangerous.
Police are currently looking at Patel's case, but no charges have been filed.
If charged, Patel could be extradited to Australia; if convicted under Australian law he could face a maximum sentence of life in prison.
The case has brought Queensland's public health system into sharp focus, with some observers saying Patel is being unfairly blamed for the system's shortcomings.
Earlier in the inquiry, two of Patel's former colleagues testified that they repeatedly complained to hospital officials about his abrasive personality and alleged pattern of malpractice, but to no avail.
Nurse Toni Hoffman and Director of Medicine Peter Miach claim they were told Patel was generating a lot of money for the hospital through elective surgeries and that they should be more accommodating.